Photos by John Freeman

Help or Shoot? The photojournalist’s eternal question put to the test.

By John Freeman

Should photojournalists shoot pictures first, or help people in trouble? As a journalism professor, that’s a question I ask students to ponder. A personal real-life incident yesterday reinforced the answer I give in class.

I’ve just left the parking lot at my local Publix grocery store when I see a wobbly man on the opposite sidewalk stumble and collapse. I pull a U-Turn, put on the flashers and run up to the stranger, who’s motionless. “Sir, are you all right?” I ask him from a few feet away. He staggers to his feet, plastic drink mug still in hand, glasses askew, and with eyes wide and blinking, tells me to leave him alone.

I steady the man and ask if he needs help. “Do you have a medical condition?” He brushes off my assistance and almost collapses again into heavy traffic. I call 9–1–1 and report our location. He resists my efforts to get him seated on the grass and tries to continue walking. I grab the strap on his backpack to slow him down, and by keeping my left arm straight, steer him away from the sidewalk. With a cell phone to my right ear, I again ask 9–1–1 to send someone quickly. I fear the man is about the wiggle off the backpack and either charge at me or cross into the busy street.

Stumbling together, with me at his back, we’re now 100 more feet down the sidewalk. He collapses again and I tell him to stay down and let’s wait for help. Besides being disoriented and apparently suffering a medical issue, I think he’s probably intoxicated. The mug he continues to clutch smells of alcohol. Feeling like I’m in a cop show on TV, I give the 9–1–1 operator a full description of the pedestrian: Hispanic male, 35–40 years old, both arms heavily tattooed, tan cargo shorts, black work boots, black backpack, black ball cap.

The man wobbles to his feet again — just as a white Ford Explorer screeches up from the other direction and parks on the grass. A 20-something-year-old Hispanic driver gets out and yells at me, “Leave him alone! What are you doing?” He looks ready to fight me. I’m guessing he’s a family member or friend who’s randomly driven by and sees me restraining the pedestrian by his backpack. “Let go of him!” the guy screams. I yell back, “He’s going to fall into the street. He collapsed back by my car!” Once the new guy grabs and supports the man, I release my grip on the backpack and decide my Good Samaritan duties are at their limit. I’m not looking to get slugged. I step back five paces and become an observer.

With lights and siren on, a fire truck shows up just as the 9–1–1 operator disconnects (she was on the entire time, including when the SUV drove up). I’m now happy to let officials sort out the issue. Three firemen talk the pedestrian into sitting down but they don’t acknowledge me. “Looks like a diabetic attack,” one of them says. “We’re going to test your blood sugar.” They give the man a tube of solution and tell him to eat it all. I ask a fireman if I’m needed for anything. “Nope, we’re good,” he says. The family member/friend stands up, comes over to me and offers a handshake. “Just trying to help,” I say, still not sure what to think about him. Why was he so angry earlier?

I walk back to my car. The keys are still in the ignition and the engine’s running. A police vehicle and ambulance arrive as I drive away. How long did all this take? I check my cell phone history for the 9–1–1 call: six minutes. It seemed like at least 30 to me.

After posting an abbreviated story of the incident on Facebook last night, I was astounded at the first comment. “Pictures?” wrote a local photojournalist. What? Was he joking? As a full-time professor of photojournalism, should I have taken photographs of the scene? The thought never crossed my mind; all I wanted to do was help the man recover and not get hit by cars on a busy street. It really wasn’t a news event, but more of a private medical condition played out in public.

The only time I briefly thought about taking an iPhone picture was when the Ford Explorer showed up. If the driver either punched me or drove off with the pedestrian, I would have wanted a photo of his license plate.

As many other Facebook comments flowed in overnight, most focused on the potential danger of the situation and how I had perhaps saved a life. If that’s true, we’ll never know. But in a similar situation as the initial responder, I’d do the same thing again. That’s what I teach my photojournalism students at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications: Always help first if you can.

August 22, 2015

Photo by Wesley Rodriguez

John Freeman is University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications Associate Professor of Journalism and a former photo-journalist at The Palm Beach Post, The Arizona Republic, The Wichita Eagle, The Los Angeles Times and The Bergen County (NJ) Record.

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